In light of the 2012 edition of the South America Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC), held in Bogotá, Colombia, from July 24-26, General Douglas Fraser, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), answered questions from Colombian and international journalists covering the event.
With his impending retirement later in the year, Gen. Fraser attended SOUTHDEC 2012 for the last time as the head of SOUTHCOM. Diálogo reproduces the comments he provided during the joint press conference he gave next to General Alejandro Navas, commander of the Colombian Military.
In a second article, soon to come, Diálogo will reproduce Gral. Nava’s answers to questions such as Colombia’s role in achieving regional security, the challenges they face and their plans for the future.
What was the main topic and goal of SOUTHDEC 2012? What have you learned from this interaction for future implementation?
Gen. Douglas Fraser: We have come together to create a forum in which to discuss military transformation, a very important topic that is fundamental in the future success of hemispheric cooperation and joint security. The accelerated progress of technology, exponential growth of communication through computer networks and its availability to all sorts of actors has created new platforms that must be considered in our joint efforts. These same platforms also provide us with new opportunities to improve and broaden our collaboration and mission, both of which concern the entire region, such as operations to share the responsibility of counteracting transnational organized crime and supporting people affected by natural disasters. This conference has allowed us to revisit the idea of military transformation in areas like cyber security, energy and environmental protection. We have been able to discuss efforts of change toward common goals in areas of mutual interest. As host and participant, Colombia is, once again, making a significant contribution to security, cooperation and regional partnerships.
What is your opinion on the creation of a new defense organization led by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR)?
Gen. Fraser: I think that the South American Defense Committee as part of UNASUR is a very important organization. It provides the opportunity for all the militaries and ministries of defense of South America to come together and work together on a common intent for the security and stability of all of South America.
But I think it’s important to also look at that from a broader context. From a SOUTHCOM stand point and from a U.S. standpoint we see that as a very favorable progress and as a favorable institution as UNASUR and the South American Defense Council continue to grow in capacity. But the challenges we face are hemispheric and they’re global. There’s a solution that works within South America, but there are also connections to Central America, the Caribbean, North America, Africa, and into the Pacific. All of those are important because globalized transnational organizations impact us all, and we can’t have one solution only. And I think we have that in various ways as we have tried to address this transnational criminal problem in the past. When we’ve focused in one place successfully, they have moved. As we address it as an enterprise and a global problem, we will have more success. I see UNASUR and the South American Defense Council as a part of that larger solution.
What are the biggest challenges in the fight against narcotrafficking and toward achieving intercontinental security? What do you mean when you refer to military transformation?
Gen. Fraser: I still see transnational organized crime as the biggest security problem facing the entire Western Hemisphere. Much of the production of cocaine comes from the northern part of South America; right now it travels through Central America, primarily through Mexico, across the southwest border and into the United States.
Every part of that geographic area is part of the solution. There is no one area that will stop that. As we talk transformation I think of a couple of important items to demonstrate how we continue to address this concern. First, the fact that Colombia has adjusted its strategy and its structure to the current strategy and implementation over the last years is an important recognition of the change in the transnational crime and FARC operations, and how to adjust to those. Across Central America writ large, we, from within the United States, have adjusted our strategy also to address transnational criminal traffic through the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific. We began Operation Martillo about six months ago, and as a result of Operation Martillo we have seen a reduction of the air traffic going into Central America by almost 50 percent; we have seen a reduction in the maritime traffic by almost 40 percent, and we have seen the amount of cocaine and other activity that has been disrupted. Those are all positive moves and show the transformation that is very important as we look and assess the situation we have and the importance of conferences like this where we have the opportunity to share our views and figure out how to work better and closer together to address this common problem.
One of the great concerns continues to be Mexico. How will you work with the newly-elected Mexican government to augment their equipment, including unmanned aerial vehicles, like you are doing with Colombia? How is that – not only bilateral alliance, but multilateral alliance with Mexico and other countries, including Colombia – going to work?
Gen. Fraser: Directly, my responsibility really ends at the border between Mexico and Guatemala and Belize. From the United States perspective, the U.S. Northern Command is responsible for working military-to-military relationships with the Armed Forces of Mexico. That said, there are military representatives from Mexico at this conference and we have very cordial and close relationships between the U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Southern Command, the Armed Forces of Mexico and the Armed Forces in Central America as well as South America, as evidenced by their representation here. We are working multilaterally. I can’t answer specifically the questions on exactly what the U.S. military support is to Mexico because that is not my responsibility. What I will tell you is that there is very close coordination and cooperation, and really, working with the Mexican Armed Forces on training, on information sharing, is how we work together to address the common problem. Colombia is now also providing support to Mexico, and even beyond that, to other countries within the region. That is important for them and important for all of us because it improves the way we work together and it really is in that manner that we will have the best results.
Part of the agreements under Plan Colombia included leaving the topic of illegal farming in the hands of that country. According to the U.N., the areas dedicated to these crops have gowned in recent months. Do you think U.S. aid is necessary once again to combat this plague?
Gen. Fraser: Talking very specifically about the U.S. Southern Command perspective, we have been very engaged with our partners here in Colombia through many years, as you’ve talked about. Plan Colombia has been in existence for a long time and it has evolved. As Colombia’s strategy has evolved, the United States Southern Command support has evolved also. As the Colombian Armed Forces were working their strategy to adjust, we provided support with lessons that we had learned from our fights in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide some of that knowledge to support the Colombians’ efforts. We’ve had exchanges from a maintenance standpoint, to intelligence, to how we work all those capabilities better, and we continue to very much focus in those areas. We are looking and working with the Ministry of Defense on the purchase of helicopters, on improving the capacity that Colombia has to respond, so I see that we have been very, very deliberately engaged with the Armed Forces of Colombia throughout.
More broadly, the United States Government continues to support the consolidation plan that the Colombian Government has in various parts. The effort is coordinated with various agencies within the Colombian Government which are working in support programs, at risk programs, programs to help reduce the growth of cocaine production, and programs to help infrastructure. Across the board, there is very deliberate support by the government of the United States toward Colombia’s strategy.